Government postpones decision on controversial church lands bill
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Government postpones decision on controversial church lands bill

Sponsor of legislation, MK Rachel Azaria, said she hopes to reach a settlement with religious leaders in the coming weeks

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III delivers a statement to the press as he stands next to the Custodian of the Holy Land Fr. Francesco Patton and Armenian Bishop Siwan (L) on February 25, 2018, outside of the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City. (AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON)
Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III delivers a statement to the press as he stands next to the Custodian of the Holy Land Fr. Francesco Patton and Armenian Bishop Siwan (L) on February 25, 2018, outside of the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City. (AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON)

Israel has again postponed discussion on a bill that would allow the state to seize church lands that have been sold to private developers.

Under intense pressure from church leaders, the Israeli government on Sunday froze debate on the contentious bill. Israel’s churches have repeatedly opposed the legislation, claiming it could allow Israel to expropriate valuable properties.

The bill’s sponsor, lawmaker Rachel Azaria, said church leaders have misinterpreted the bill. She said she is trying to protect thousands of residents living in buildings built on leased church lands.

Azaria said residents could face massive price hikes or even eviction from private developers when their leases expire in the coming decades. The uncertainty has caused property values to plummet.

Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria attends a Kulanu faction meeting in the Knesset on May 7, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Azaria said she hopes to reach a settlement with churches in the coming weeks.

The churches feat that if Israel expropriates the land it would hamper their ability to freely sell their land in the future. The churches own large swathes of land in some of Jerusalem’s best neighborhoods, with much of it on long-term leases.

It was the latest in a series of delays in discussing the bill.

In October, three major Holy Land churches on Friday called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to block draft legislation they said was aimed at expropriating their property.

In a letter to Netanyahu, heads of the Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches in Jerusalem and a senior Roman Catholic official condemned the bill as “disgraceful.”

In the letter, the churchmen said Netanyahu himself had written to them in July giving “assurances to withdraw the legislation.”

In the July letter, Netanyahu told the church leaders that they would meet with MK Tzachi Hanegbi to discuss their concerns, adding that he is “proud of Israel’s flourishing Christian community.”

However, their October letter expressed shock from the religious officials that the “scandalous” legislation appeared to be going ahead.

“We were astonished to realize that this disgraceful bill was listed on the agenda of the ministerial committee for legislation this coming Sunday,” it said.

“We are therefore compelled to call yet again for Your Excellency’s urgent intervention to stop this bill once and for all.”

The bill was subsequently shelved.

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